Posted by: Godfångst | May 14, 2009

Stuff Your Opinions

In his celebrated book, *On Liberty*, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that silencing an opinion is ‘a peculiar evil.’ If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the ‘opportunity of exchanging error for truth’; and if it’s wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth in its ‘collision with error.’ If we know only our own side of the argument, we hardly know even that: it becomes stale, soon learned by rote, untested, a pallid and lifeless truth. (Carl Sagan)

But what if the person with whom one is arguing isn’t interested in a “deeper understanding of the truth?”

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” Carrie Prejean said in an interview the other day.

You hear that a lot. The problem is, it’s not necessarily true. I guess it depends on what you mean by “entitled.”

Freedom of speech? Of course. Say or think whatever you like, and Ms. Prejean has the right to believe whatever she likes, but the right to hold a belief doesn’t guarantee its validity.

I believe, for example, that we came from a lowly race of cockroach-like people from the planet Zabar, my mother and father raised me to believe it, and I have a book written by a bunch of dead people to prove it! So I’m right. You can’t argue with me because it’s my opinion, and I’ve a right to it.

The difference is that my belief doesn’t make her into a cockroach. But her belief has made me into an eternally unmarried woman. Who’s doing the real harm here?

As British philosopher Jamie Whyte writes in his excellent book Crimes Against Logic,

Does your right to your opinion oblige me to let you keep it?

This is the closest to what I think most mean when they claim a right to their opinion. They do so at just that point in an argument when they would otherwise be forced to admit error and change their position….If someone is interested in believing the truth, then she will not take the presentation of contrary evidence and argument as some kind of injury. It’s just that, on some topics, many people are not really interested in believing the truth.

Whyte argues that we actually ought to “take every reasonable measure to change her opinion.”

But for someone to be able do that, Ms. Prejean and others like her must have opinions based on something other than faith, since most of us who are trying to get others to respect our constitutional rights feel pessimistic about being able to change anyone’s faith-based beliefs.

If her only justification for her belief is “it’s the way I was raised,” or it’s “Biblically correct,” what am I to do? Refute her family traditions or her faith in the Bible? It seems to me unlikely that I’d be able to do that. And so we remain unable to have a real dialogue or discover the real truth unless she’s willing to consider whether we can make laws based on her family tradition, what she thinks is right, or what she believes the Bible dictates. I am perfectly willing to consider whether God is really angry at me for being a lesbian. But first, I’d have to be able to prove that. Or that God even exists. If Descartes can’t do that, how can Carrie Prejean? I can, on the other hand, prove that I have a constitutional right to access the particular protections of US immigration law and tax law that are only available to married persons, which I can not access since I cannot BE a married person.

Normally, opinions, beliefs, theories or hypotheses–like the opinion that there is life on another planet, that disease is caused by evil spirits, that smoking causes cancer, that LGBT couples have constitutional rights that make the ban on same-sex marriage totally illegal–need to be tested and verified to the highest degree possible, with intellectual and moral honesty, with the knowledge that what one believes might be wrong. Like a scientist who is NOT working for a pharmaceutical company or a tobacco corporation, one must be willing to be proven wrong.

If no empirical evidence is available or empirical proof isn’t possible, one must rely on logical argument. And the principles of logical argument dictate that basing any logical string of arguments on the premise, “Because that’s what I was told,” or “Because God/Allah/Jesus/Perez Hilton/Miss California USA/Ann Coulter says so” is weak.

Never mind that being “Biblically correct,” as Ms. Prejean calls herself, is an extremely difficult endeavor, especially if you actually know something about the Bible, its history, and its authors, and you aren’t just relying on what you were told or a series of handpicked sound bites, a “Best Of…” of scripture, which, it seems to me, constitutes most people’s knowledge of the Bible. Also weak.

And if Ms. Prejean doesn’t wish to support her opinions at all, or even try to explain a more rational basis for them, then they really are just that–her own opinions, just as her breasts (false as they are) are hers alone and can’t matter to anyone else. They have no relevance outside the boundaries of her own personal body space.

Instead of personal attacks against Prejean, though, or any sort of implication that she shouldn’t have said what she did, I’d like to hear from the so-called “gay activists” reasons why her opinion lacks validity (because there are plenty of good reasons, but most of them take longer than a 30-second sound bite to explain), and I’d like to hear her offer more than just “Because I/my parents/the unverifiable word of God said so.” Faith is just that–it’s something you believe that can’t be proven or verified. And it’s not something on which any reasonable person would base any law or scientific theory.

Ann Coulter instead said on Fox News, “She’s being attacked as Christ said she would be.” Not an argument–an emotional appeal. There’s a difference.

And anyway, Christ said if you reveal your personal views on national TV while competing in a beauty pageant, you’d be attacked by those who think your opinions are invalid? Gee. I haven’t found that one in the Bible yet. But Christ said a lot of stuff. Maybe it’s in there somewhere. I thought Christ was all into arguing and convincing? Do I need to tell a story about loaves and fishes to get these people to listen?

No. Because they don’t want to listen. Or think. Or reason. They want to believe only. And so, of course Prejean is being attacked. It’s a controversial issue, especially in California, and those of Prejean’s ideological bent have little hard evidence or logical argument or support for their precious opinions. Just belief, tradition–and the sheer popularity or commonness of their opinions, which aren’t enough in a rational society of laws, which is what I thought the US was. So I will invoke the law here: Carrie Prejean has the right to be wrong, to spout unsupported personal opinions. But does she have the right to take away my rights?

I would be more than willing to ignore her opinions–if they weren’t intimately tied to my own rights, like an ugly, heavy stone. If she voted in the California election against my right to marry, I must be interested in her opinion, unfortunately. But all I’ve heard so far in this “dialogue” are unsupported opinions and adversarial remarks designed to stir up drama. What about logic? REAL argument? The law? The truth is that whatever Carrie Prejean’s opinions are, they aren’t any basis for lawmaking, even though uninformed opinion is often the only intellectual equipment a citizen brings to the voting booth. THAT is what should really trouble people, whether the issue is gun control, same-sex marriage, immigration policy, or anything else.

People not only will, they MUST disagree with her–even vociferously, as people like her, the absolute truth of their personal beliefs defended by politicians, ideologues, and others eager for publicity, have thrust millions of people–gay men, lesbians, gay couples and their children alike–into second-class status in California and in America as a whole. Her “opinions,” unsupported by law, logic, or reason, have made at least one law here in California, a law that has put thousands of couples and their families at risk. It has made my entire life more difficult than it needs to be. What right has she to do that?

What if Prejean had said, “I believe marriage is between a white man and a white woman?” Fifty or sixty years ago, this would have been a common statement–even a popular one. Today, even a child can see the idiocy of it. However fervently one believed it at the time, believing it was true didn’t make it so.

What will it take to get Americans to realize that regardless of their personal feelings and opinions, LGBT people have constitutional rights? You can believe it’s not true until you bust a breast implant, until your eyes bug out, until you drop dead.

But it is true.

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